New opportunities


Published: Sunday, October 1, 2006 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Sunday, October 1, 2006 at 12:00 a.m.
ASHBURN, Va. - In a perfect world, Byron Leftwich would be the quarterback for the Washington Redskins, and Mark Brunell would still be the quarterback for the Jacksonville Jaguars.
Leftwich grew up on 58th Street in Southeast Washington. He and his older brother would cry when the Redskins lost. They'd play in the street Sunday afternoon, re-enacting their favorite plays from the game they just saw on television.
Sometimes Leftwich would sneak into RFK Stadium to watch the games in person, aided by a ticket-taker who would conveniently turn a blind eye to the kids running onto the concourse.
"He told me, 'If you run, I can't chase you.' So I ran through," Leftwich said. "Sneaking into RFK, that was a special sight to see. It was a special place to be."
Leftwich became a star at H.D. Woodson High School and played in the city's annual Turkey Bowl championship game on Thanksgiving. He went to college at Marshall, where the realization hit him: Leftwich was good enough to play in the NFL, which meant he might not always be a diehard Redskins fan above all else.
On draft day in 2003, his allegiance changed.
"The second they call your name, and it was the Jacksonville Jaguars, it changes real quick," he said.
Nevertheless, Leftwich is still loved in D.C., and his homecoming is a celebration of an inner-city success story. He had to buy more than 90 tickets for friends and family - "and the Redskins tickets are not cheap," he noted - for today, when the Jaguars (2-1) visit Brunell and the Redskins (1-2).
"Personally, it is a little more special because I did grow up there," Leftwich said. "It gives an opportunity for a lot of people who haven't seen me play in person since high school that opportunity now. It's special anytime you have a chance to play at home."
After he was drafted, Leftwich crossed paths with Brunell. The rookie replaced the beloved veteran who had been the starting quarterback since 1995. Brunell hurt his elbow in the third game and never played for Jacksonville again. He was traded to the Redskins after the season.
"It was an awkward situation," Leftwich said. "You've got to understand, Mark was the only quarterback they had ever known since the franchise got started. They went through the highs of the highs and the lows of the lows. When you know of only one quarterback for that long, the guy deserves everything he gets down here. He deserves for the fans and city to still love him.
"That doesn't mean that they don't love me, too. It just took some time for them to get used to me because they were so used to having Mark being the quarterback of this football team."
Indeed, Brunell never thought he'd be a quarterback anywhere else. He still loves the city. He has a house in Jacksonville and returns there often. It's where he'd like to live once he's retired. Former Jaguars teammate Tony Boselli will be staying at Brunell's house this weekend.
Moving north was not easy. "It was more than just playing for the Jaguars. We felt connected to the community. We'd done a lot of things off-field with our foundation," Brunell said. "We spent a lot of time there, made a lot of great relationships there. So to leave, particularly when you thought you would finish there, it was really difficult. But that's the business."
Now Brunell is in Washington, where he has been washed up, resurrected, washed up and resurrected in less than three seasons. The 36-year-old quarterback looked his age when the Redskins started 0-2, but he rebounded by setting an NFL single-game record with 22 consecutive completions in last week's victory at Houston.
Brunell cut his throwing elbow against the Texans, the same injury that led to Leftwich taking the starting job three years ago in Jacksonville. The injury isn't expected to be serious enough to keep Brunell from facing his old team for the first time.
Like Leftwich, Brunell said this game means "a little more," although it would be more emotional if the game were in Jacksonville - or if so much time hadn't elapsed.
"The disappointment was three years ago," Brunell said. "You have to move on. You get a new opportunity. I was fortunate to get another opportunity with a good team and a Hall of Fame coach. We live in northern Virginia and we absolutely love it. It's not Jacksonville. It's not home, but if you are going to be somewhere else, then it's a great place to be."
Not home, but a great place to be. Sounds like the same thing D.C.'s Leftwich might say about Jacksonville.

Jacksonville (2-1) at Washington (1-2) 4:15 p.m., today, CBS

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